How Google Is Fighting Sex Trafficking With Big Data

For years human traffickers have used the latest technology to profit from the slave trade, but now software engineers at big data companies like Palantir and Salesforce are enabling anti-trafficking organizations to fight back–thanks to a little funding help from Google.

How Google Is Fighting Sex Trafficking With Big Data

I have a particular interest in sex trafficking. I know that’s a weird thing to say, but it’s because I was first exposed to it during the Cannes Film Festival many years ago, only I didn’t realize it at the time. Years after, when I finally made the connection, I began writing a novel about it. Since then, I’ve talked to trafficking victims in Poland and Italy and France. I’ve spoken to a girl who was a source who has disappeared. I know of victims who are so traumatized they hear voices in their heads. In Krakow while researching sex trafficking, I was assaulted and told to leave the city or I would be killed. And in America, I’ve been laughed at when I’ve told people the subject of my novel because many here don’t believe that modern-day slavery exists–or if they do, they think it’s only something that happens in Asia or Eastern Europe or Africa. They have no clue that it goes on in big American cities, and in suburbs, and at truck stops across the country.


The latest estimates about human trafficking, which include individuals held against their will in the sex trade and forced laborers in agricultural, industrial, and manufacturing settings, are that at least 21 million people on the planet are currently in slavery. To put that figure in perspective, that’s the equivalent of the entire populations of New York City, London, and Singapore combined. And it’s an industry that generates over $32 billion a year.

The billions of dollars are being made off the backs of people no different than you or I–they’re just living in hell. Slaves in Asia who have literally been born and raised in a rice mill and have never stepped outside of it. Seven-year-old girls abducted in Russia or Brazil or America who are taken to foreign countries where they don’t speak the language and are told that going to the police is pointless, because the police are in on it; that if they try to escape, their family at home will be killed. These are people who don’t even feel like people anymore. They are property. Like your iPhone.

The thing about human trafficking is that it is not as “underground” as you might think a slave trade would be. Human traffickers use the latest technologies to their advantage–and do so exceptionally well. But now, thanks in part to a $3 million grant from Google, a group of three anti-trafficking organizations–Polaris in the U.S., LaStrada International in Eastern Europe, and Liberty Asia–are using innovative technology from big data partners Palantir and to launch The Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network, which aims to turn the tide in the fight against modern-day slavery.


How Good Guys Are Using Technology Against Traffickers

“The traffickers are very savvy on the use of technology and the good guys need to get more savvy. We need to enable them to use the tools of the 21st century to take this on.”

That’s what Jacquelline Fuller, Director of Google Giving, tells me when I ask her how software can help fight trafficking. Fuller’s interest in trafficking stemmed from her time at the Gates Foundation. She was in India helping launch an HIV prevention initiative when her research into the commercial sex industry there opened her eyes to the realities of sex trafficking.

Upon returning to the States, Fuller joined–the philanthropic arm of the search giant that develops technologies to help address global challenges. “We look at how can we attack real-world problems through our engineers, through tools that we actually build and develop ourselves,” she says.


Part of is also its charitable funding arm, Google Giving, which runs the Global Impact Awards that support nonprofits using technology and innovation to tackle tough human challenges. “I’m a big believer in the power of technology for social impact,” Fuller says. “I think that’s an area that’s very underfunded.”

And this year the Global Impact Award went to anti-trafficking organizations Polaris Project, LaStrada International, and Liberty Asia due to their burgeoning work with using big data to build an interconnected grid of modern-day tools to fight human trafficking.

“Trafficking isn’t a very static or a very monolithic thing. There are uses of technology that traffickers are using that we haven’t even learned yet. It’s very fluid and the folks working on trafficking need to be as nimble as the traffickers are in our ability to innovate, in our ability to leverage new technologies to make our work more effective,” says Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris Project, one of the recipients of the grant.


Myles tells me that traffickers use technology like everyone else does–to make their lives easier. They use social media to recruit victims, they use mobile devices with built-in GPS to track women under their control, so they always know where they are and if they are servicing clients, and they even use Internet groups as a marketplace to buy and sell women and forced laborers.

Traffickers also use technology to get online customers via porn sites–even if those customers don’t know that the women they’re watching are being held against their will. “There are webcam sites that exist where traffickers force women to be involved in live online shows. Traffickers are forcing women and girls to strip and do sex acts over webcams for sex buyers that are in another country but are interacting with the women nonetheless,” Myles says.

So given the traffickers’ skills with using technology to their advantage, what do Google, Polaris, and the rest think the answer is to fighting the tech-savvy slave trade?



Bringing Help Hotlines Into The 21st Century

When you think of a “hotline,” you think of an outdated, 20th century answer to data sharing–a 1-800 number. Maybe you even see a picture dialing in on a rotary phone. But when Google and Polaris think of hotlines, they’re talking about centers that acquire data from multiple types of inputs, and using the latest data analytic technology to turn information into action.

“A lot of hotlines are stuck in the last century. They’re only taking phone calls, instead of using new technologies and pushing the hotline to communicate in multiple channels or multiple modes of communication,” Myles explains. “We believe the next generation hotline needs to not just be phone services, but also needs to operate mobile, email, online reporting, and SMS messaging. We’re ready to really push the hotline to become multi-modal.”


Another problem with current anti-trafficking hotlines is that, for the most part, they work in isolation. A hotline in Poland collects and records data differently than one in Los Angeles, and that one does it differently than one in Thailand, and so on. But just as the web is interconnected, Google and Polaris believe hotlines should be as well. Instead of a hundred different hotlines using a hundred different data systems with a hundred different ways of tracking data, the two companies knew the time was right to move toward some standardization that anti-trafficking organizations can use.

Combine that standardization with cutting edge data aggregation and sharing tools and you have the genesis of the The Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. Right now the hotline only consists of three organizations (Polaris, LaStrada, and Liberty Asia) but in the future it will be able to be quickly rolled out to other organizations thanks to a common backend provided by

“We’re working with Salesforce to export our database infrastructure so that other hotlines around the world can just plug and play and grab our database infrastructure and start using it,” Myles explains. “If we do things like that, we’ll start to get to a point where there’s more uniformity around the world.” And that uniformity can eventually help free slaves.


Making Sense of the Data

It’s one thing to standardize database infrastructures (and that itself is no small feat), but even then the data that is collected is only as useful insofar as you can process it and then use it to take action. That’s where the software engineers at Palantir come in. Palantir was founded by a number of PayPal alumni and a group of computer scientists from Stanford. The company’s technology grew from data analytic and visualization systems invented while at PayPal to cite fraud. But after 9/11 the founders received funding from the CIA’s venture arm In-Q-Tel and decided to apply their technology to the areas of counterterrorism and intelligence.

What Palantir is allowing The Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network to do is to make all the data it gathers useful. And in the case of human trafficking, the data the hotline collects becomes useful in two distinct ways: the first for immediate response, and the second for pattern recognition.

The immediate response comes when a sex trafficking victim or a forced laborer manages to call or send a text into an operator at the hotline.


“When you’re talking about someone who is taking a big leap of faith to call a hotline number from a sticker on a bathroom and say, ‘My pimp’s asleep; my pimp’s passed out,’ and have someone there in seven minutes to help that person rather than 17 minutes–that window of opportunity can close very rapidly, and so each moment you can hasten that process is very, very valuable,” says Jason Payne, philanthropy engineer at Palantir. “The core workflow that we’re providing is helping the call specialist comprehend their toolkit of options better and faster.”

In the case of immediate response like this, Palantir’s technology lets a call center operator pull up a Java or HTML 5 web app that maps where the victim is calling from. The operator can then do a radius search around that area to find what partnerships they have with NGOs or law enforcement agencies and use a histogram to look at the data they have about each of those to find the best match and then facilitate a linkup.

In addition to powerful search and mapping tools, data is automatically pushed to the hotline operator instead of having to manually pull it. For example, if a caller is describing the service station on the side of the road she is calling from, data of possible matches are pushed onto the operator’s screen as she inputs more information from the caller. In this way, Palantir’s technology allows hotline specialists to achieve rapid spatial context in two minutes instead of the five or seven minutes it would take if they had to access three or four different databases to find that information.


“All of these search questions, whether it be a statistical search, a keyword search, a geographic search, can be saved and run in the background automatically,” Payne says. “When a hotline analysts logs in in the morning they see new information that matches those people. Using that easier capability to comprehend the data, they’re able to look at what trafficking networks are in play to better understand where networks are active and where they’re not.”

And it’s the power of using big data to understand trafficking networks where the second part of Palantir’s technology comes in: the ability to discern patterns in human trafficking so real-world resources such as law enforcement initiatives, government legislation, and NGO field work can be better allocated to fight it.

But perhaps most importantly, the systems developed by Palantir allow big data to be shared on a level that was previously unimaginable–something that was, in the recent past, almost as large an obstacle to taking action as collecting the data in the first place.


Another Obstacle: Sharing Data

“When we look at things like the 9/11 Commission or many other failures of organizational communication, it really boils down to data sharing,” Payne tells me. “The fundamental problem with any sort of collaborative effort to find any dark network is information sharing. Especially when you start to talk about personal identifiable information–or even more so when we start to talk about health information. What it takes to say, ‘Yes, I can share this information with another organization’… it’s very, very difficult to make that ‘Yes’ decision.”

The reason it was so difficult to get a “yes” decision in the past when requests for information sharing came in from various organizations was because before Palantir’s technology came along, data sharing on a large scale was mostly all or nothing, which meant critical data would more often than not not be allowed to be shared because doing so could violate a person’s civil liberties or various human rights laws across the globe.

“If it’s an all-or-nothing decision the answer’s going to be nothing,” says Payne. “Because you’re breaking a cluster of laws in the International Health Regulations, like article 45, which protects an individual’s identity, and also a number of HIPAA and numerous other privacy laws.”


As you might imagine, for all the agencies involved this was very frustrating. The data existed to help fight human trafficking, but because it’s important to protect an individual’s civil liberties, the potential answers for problems couldn’t always be shared.

To put this in the context of a single data file of one individual–for a fictitious sex trafficking victim named Maria, for example–an anti-trafficking organization might have incredibly useful information they obtained from her. Maria’s file could list her personal information, including name, date of birth, current address, original address, phone number, language spoken, and more (all important for a social worker to know), but her file might also contain the locations she was kept in while trafficked, how many men she was forced to service, the names of her pimps, descriptions of them (important for law enforcement and legislators to know), and it could also contain her ethnicity, HIV and other STD statuses, and history of substance abuse (important for health researchers and analysts to know). As you can see, such a file contains a myriad of valuable information for many groups of people–but rarely could that information be shared.

Sure, in the past an anti-trafficking organization could print out Maria’s file, use a big black Sharpie to black out information, and then scan and fax the remaining information to the requesting organizations–but in most trafficking cases time is of the essence and even when time is not critical, certainly scanning Sharpied-out information to multiple agencies is not an optimal solution here. Not to mention the process may work fine for one victim’s file, but when you get up to the hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of files, it’s not practical.


In order to share mass amounts of useful data responsibly, the trick is in empowering organizations to share subsets of that data, so they can change their answer–which is going to be a “No” if it’s all-or-nothing data sharing–to a “Yes.”

And that’s exactly what Palantir’s technology does: It allows big data to be shared through a very granular security model.

For example, the analyst looking at the larger trends in trafficking in a certain part of the world really has no need to know the personal identifiable information of Maria. There’s no need for that analyst to know her phone number or address or name, but knowing the city that she was born in or her general age range or ethnicity is very important. Palantir’s technology allows such sharing so that every single analyst gets access to only the data sets they need.

When describing granular data sharing, the easiest way to explain it is by likening it to Facebook. If you look at Facebook pre-2009, all of your data was accessible to everyone on the network. Since then it’s iteratively gotten better about privacy and sharing settings to the point where you can share a status update with only a subset of people. That’s similar to what the Palantir sharing information model looks like in terms of the ability to share specific facets with granular groups of people–but at a much more refined level, a level that does not exist in a lot of data analysis systems in the world today.

“When we start to talk about sharing between organizations going from Eastern Europe to America to East Asia, what we can do through our technological solution is we can actually empower organizations to say, ‘I’m willing and legally able to share this subset of data with this subset of people within the organization,’” Payne explains. “Once you start to build that collaborative picture, especially in something like the EU where you have open boundaries, you have the ability to start to understand where people are being trafficked from and to. That really will start to help comprehend what trafficking networks are at play that are moving these individuals.”

“Imagine what our global anti-trafficking effort could feel like if there were a powerful, effective, multi-modal, well-publicized and well-resourced ‘next generation’ anti-trafficking hotline in every country or region of the world, and those hotlines were integrated, sharing data, leveraging new technologies, and coordinating more with each other and with myriad local law enforcement and service respondents,” Myles, the CEO of Polaris Project, recently told the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. “This global safety net will not only make it easier for the millions of people held in slavery to reach out to a hotline and access help, but it will also ensure that the first responders in the field are more prepared for that call when it comes in. Shared data and a powerful global data analysis initiative involving hotline call data will be critical to understanding the global footprint of human trafficking and driving new strategic interventions aimed at reducing and eradicating the crime.”

Why You Should Still Be Angry

I have yet to change my Twitter bio, which reads “I write about tech and sex trafficking, though not in relation to each other.” But thankfully, as of today that’s no longer true. That’s because technology and big data are finally at a point where they can help fight very real-world problems like sex trafficking and human slavery.

But just because Google and Palantir and Polaris and other anti-trafficking organizations are on their way to using technology to fight human trafficking doesn’t mean the journey is anywhere near over. Hell, it’s only just begun.

When I ask Google Giving’s director Jacquelline Fuller what it’s going to take to stop modern-day slavery for good–is better technology enough, or is more legislation needed, or more awareness, or what?–she says, “We need it all, baby. We need it all.”

Bradley Myles agrees. And he tells me an area that is critical in the future is awareness. That needed awareness not only comes in the form of new, creative ways to get hotline numbers into the hands of trafficking victims around the world, but also a need of awareness in the general population that slavery didn’t end in the 1800s. It’s still around today.

And if you’re reading this–or if you ever have the soul-crushing yet eye-opening experience of talking to a trafficking victim–and that makes you realize that hell does exist on earth, and it makes you angry, but at the same time makes you feel helpless, know that you don’t need to be a legislator, or a software engineer, or in law enforcement to make a difference in the fight against slavery.

Increased awareness matters. And awareness isn’t going to increase about the slave trade unless you tell people; unless you take action. Show people this article. Tweet it. Share it on Facebook. Visit Polaris’s, LaStrada’s, and Liberty Asia’s websites. Check out the sidebars in this article to find out more ways you can help.

But above all, get angry, stay angry, and tell people about slavery. You don’t need to have a $3 million grant to make a difference. You don’t need big databases or powerful analytic tools. All the technology you need to spread this information is in your hands, as you read this, right now. So do it.

Here are just some of the hotline numbers currently available in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

In the U.S. (via Polaris):
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888, or text BeFree (233733) to the same number.

In Europe (via LaStrada):
Belarus: + 375 17 295 31 67
Bulgaria: + 359 2 981 76 86
Czech Republic: + 420 2 22 71 7171
Moldova: + 373 22 23 33 09
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia: + 389 2 2777 070
Netherlands: + 31 33 448 11 86
Poland: + 48 22 628 9999
Ukraine: + 380 44 205 36 94

In Asia (via Liberty Asia):
Cambodia: 1280
Myanmar: (95) 67 412555 or (95) 09 49 555 999
China: 110
Thailand: 1300 or 1191
Laos: 1191 or 1362
Vietnam: 1800 1567

[Handcuffs: HomeStudio via Shutterstock]


About the author

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist, and former screenwriter. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books. You can read more about him at